Lawrence Weschler is the author of Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder
(1995). He is at work on a book titled "Vermeer in Bosnia," about the aftermath of the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia.
Article printed here with permission of the author.
During my first few months covering the ongoing Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal in
The Hague, faced day after day with the appalling sorts of testimony that have
become that court's standard fare, I took to repairing as often as possible to
the nearby Mauritshuis, so as to commune with the museum's three Vermeers.
"Diana and Her Companions,"the "Girl With a Pearl Earring," the "View of Delft:
" astonishing, their capacity to lavish such a centered serenity upon any who
come into their purview.
More recently, however, I've increasingly found myself being drawn toward the
next room over, the one that houses Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr.
Nicholaes Tulp," a work from the generation immediately prior to Vermeer's. It
was painted in 1632, the very year of Vermeer's birth (the year, for that
matter, of John Locke's birth, and Spinoza's as well), when Rembrandt, newly arrived in
Amsterdam, was only twenty-six years old. With this astonishing work he was
brashly hanging out his shingle as an accomplished
portraitist. The year 1632 was just about the midpoint of the Thirty Years'
War, an incredibly vicious religious struggle that savaged Northern Europe with
carnage every bit as harrowing as anything being described nowadays at the
tribunal -- mayhem that regularly slashed into the Netherlands, until the
conflict was finally brought to a (provisional) end with the Treaty of
Westphalia, in 1648.
The war had provided the occasion for the publication,
in 1625, of the seminal work by an earlier son of Vermeer's Delft, Hugo
Grotius: "On the Law of War and Peace,"
a text often considered to be the foundation of all modern international law,
in particular of the Hague tribunals. The war's dark imperatives can likewise
be seen impinging on Rembrandt's great painting.
"The Anatomy Lesson" is so famously overexposed, so crusted over with
conventional regard, as to be almost impossible to see afresh. And indeed,
when I recently came upon the painting once
again, rather than seeing it I found myself recalling an essay I hadn't
thought about in almost thirty years -- the English critic John Berger's 1967
rumination on the occasion of Che Guevara's death. Responding to the
simultaneous appearance seemingly all over the world of that ghastly photo of
Che's felled body, stretched out half naked across a bare surface and surrounded by the proud Bolivian
officers and soldiers who had succeeded in bagging the revolutionary leader,
Berger made a startling connection to Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson." Gee, I
remember thinking at the time, this man doesn't look at his morning paper the way I look at mine.
But surely he was right. One could even say that Rembrandt's was the image,
almost hard-wired into the photographer's mind and the soldiers' very bodies,
that had taught them all where to stand in relation to one another and to the grim
object of their smug display.
Yet now, standing before the painting itself, I realized that for all my
conventional acquaintance with its image, I'd never seen it correctly -- or,
anyway, my memory was wrong in one crucial respect. The professor is poised in
mid-lecture beside a cadaver, its left forearm splayed open to reveal all the
sinewy musculature just beneath the skin. There is a mountain of onlookers:
some gaze out strangely toward us while the rest-and this is the part I
remembered most vividly-lean forward, gawking (like us) at all that gore. (Come
to think of it, maybe the ones gazing toward us are staring precisely at our
own queasiness in the face of such morbidity.)
Only, as I now could plainly see, that's not what's actually happening in
Rembrandt's canvas. Of course, the theme of mortality and morbidity is there --
rendered all the more unsettling by the conspicuous resemblance between the
cadaver's face and those of many of the onlookers. But that's not what the onlookers are focusing
on; death (their own or anybody else's) hardly seems to be on their minds at
all. On the contrary, the innermost trio is gazing at the professor's
living hand, the one with which he has been demonstrating the grips and
gestures made possible by this, and this, and this other newly exposed muscle
According to most traditional academic iconographic readings of the painting,
the trio is not looking at the professor's hand but rather gazing right past
it, at the opened book beyond, in the painting's lower right-hand corner -- a
thick anatomical tome, supposedly representative in this context of
authoritative education and the passing down of specialized knowledge. Nonsense
-- though, admittedly, a peculiarly self-referential art-academic,
specialized-tome-generating sort of nonsense. Just look at the picture. They're
looking at the professor's hand, and, indeed, they're looking at it
wonderstruck, spellbound, as if they've never before seen anything like it.
For what a marvel of motility it is -- with its capacity for compression and
extension, for flex and repose, grip and rotation. The hand in itself is a
veritable miracle. One is momentarily reminded by the living hand hovering over
the recumbent, lifeless body of that other great painterly trope of creative
dexterity: God's own hand extended toward the recumbent Adam's, in
Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel (an image that was surely known to Rembrandt from
the countless etchings then circulating throughout the Netherlands). More to
the point, a flexing hand -- the focus of all this awed attention-is a
painter's own foremost implement, the one with which he wields his brush. You
can just seeRembrandt painting the picture, his own actual hand burnishing the
professor's painted one as the painted class gazes on in hushed astonishment. This is a
painting, then, about looking at hands, about vision and malleability -- about
the fundamentals of painting itself.
Or, more generally, about living. It's not, as we are sometimes given to
recalling, a morbid dwelling upon death but rather a celebration, a defiant
affirmation of life and liveliness and vitality generated, as it happens, at a
moment when the world was choking with death and dying.
All of which brought me back to the tribunal, and to those hours I'd been
spending hunched in the visitors' gallery, taking in the endless tales of
horror and grisly death. I thought about the judges and the lawyers, the
investigators and the forensic anthropologists. I remembered, for instance,
Gilles Peress's remarkable photograph of the forensic anthropologist William
Haglund ever so carefully extracting a decaying body from a mass grave on a farm outside Srebrenica
(another image of Death and the Professor) -- the tender, almost loving way he
reaches to cradle and recover the rotting corpse. Almost a Pieta image.
And I realized how, appearances to the contrary, all these labors aren't about
death at all but rather about life and the living. They are about the living
witness owed to every one of the once-living victims. "In these matters," the
Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (writing in the shadow of his own country's
genocide-saturated history) insisted, "we must not be wrong / even by a single one / we are despite everything / the guardians of our brothers." They are
about securing the possibility of an ongoing life for the survivors (the widows
of Srebrenica, for instance, still stranded in limbo, straining for justice, or
at least for confirmation of the fate of their loved ones). They are about
healing a community once ravaged by war, so that liveliness can come flowing
back over an otherwise blighted terrain. They are about the lives of
generations yet to come, about breaking that cycle of atrocity followed by
impunity which plays such a large role in provoking atrocious communal retribution decades
down the line. And, finally, they are about restoring the equilibrium of the
living world itself, the world we all share. For, as Herbert concluded in his
history-laden poem, "ignorance about those who have disappeared /undermines the
reality of the world." It's a lesson that Rembrandt, too, was busy teaching.